Two points are vital to understanding the sanctions being imposed on Iran: They are unlikely to succeed — if success is defined as stopping the regime’s rulers from developing nuclear weapons — yet they are an essential component of any serious and strategic policy mix. Let us count the ways.
1. The alternative to sanctions would be doing business as usual — while representatives of Iranian commercial enterprises trot around the globe buying, selling, and trading even as Iran’s supreme leader and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps sponsor terrorism, threaten genocide, plot terrorism, and brutally persecute domestic dissidents, Christians, Baha’is and gays. That should be seen as unacceptable — politically, economically, diplomatically, and morally.
2. The ongoing debate over sanctions usefully focuses public attention on the fact that Iran is ruled by a uniquely dangerous and oppressive regime. Why are people apt to forget that? Because the regime’s apologists are sophisticated, skilled, and well-funded. And because too many journalists based in or visiting Iran are either credulous or craven. I still recall the interview I heard some years back with an American public-television producer just returned from an assignment in Tehran. He had visited a mosque that, he said, reminded him of “Lutherans worshipping in the Midwest.” He did notice that “Death to Israel!” was scrawled along one of the walls of the house of worship. But his “guide” told him, “That’s just the way we Iranians talk. Like if we’re stuck in traffic, we say: ‘Death to traffic!’” The producer found that plausible and helpful.
3. Sanctions are debilitating Iran’s economy — causing hyperinflation, unemployment, steep currency devaluations, and capital flight. Do most Iranians understand that they are being made to suffer in order to realize the imperial dreams of rulers who deny them basic freedoms, squander the country’s oil wealth, and blatantly falsify election results? It’s hard to say; I very much doubt that Iranians answer pollsters’ questions candidly. But if the average Iranian doesn’t understand who is to blame, then Voice of America and other U.S. government media are wasting taxpayers’ money. President Obama also should be speaking over the regime’s head, directly to the Iranian people.